Flying over vast, rolling steppe for three and a half hours without seeing anything so much as a village, let alone a city, is a powerful reminder that Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on the planet – a slightly daunting prospect for those of us used to being connected to the rest of the world 24 hours a day.
Touching down in the predominantly Kazakh city of Bayan Olgii, in Mongolia’s westernmost Altai region, I was relieved to still have internet access on my phone and, knowing this would be short-lived, I made a final attempt to answer emails while I had the chance.
Bayan Olgii is a small, unremarkable town, and as it faded in the distance through the rearview of our 4×4, so did my phone connection. As we set up camp on the edge of the steppes outside the city, I found myself staring at the lights of Bayan Olgii in the distance and wondering why we didn’t simply spend our first night in the comfort of civilization with warm showers, electricity, and—most importantly—an internet connection. The strange truth is that I had quite literally crossed an invisible line, temporarily exchanging one form of civilization for another. And if I wanted to fulfill the spirit of this trip, I had to move forward. I couldn’t look back. My cord was cut.
I was traveling in a Land Cruiser with a Kazakh guide and cook, and a Mongolian driver. My small “tentipi” had a foldable bed and was comfortable enough, and I started to feel quite excited about the prospect of being surrounded by nothing but stunning scenery for miles in any direction. However, as the sun set, it became much colder than I had anticipated, and I had the creeping feeling that my Mongolian Altai journey might present some unforeseen challenges.
The next morning, we started the 10-hour drive to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in Mongolia’s extreme west, bordering Russia and China. Bumping along dirt tracks, all we passed were Kazakh nomads and their grazing herds of yaks and goats. There were no signs anywhere, and I was constantly impressed by how the driver could navigate his way using just the mountains as his compass.
Late in the afternoon, we finally reached the entrance to the national park and continued off-road for another rugged hour. At the top, the five highest and most sacred peaks in Mongolia lay in front of me with the huge Potanin Glacier wrapping around them below. I could have stood gazing in awe at this incredible view for longer, but it was late in the day, very cold, and snow had started falling. So, we began working our way back to look for a place to sleep. It was too cold to camp outside like we did the night before, so we found a friendly Kazakh man who let us stay in one of his empty gers. I would become very familiar with Kazakh gers (called “Kyiz ui” by the Kazakhs) over the following nights; they tend to be larger and much more elaborate than Mongolian gers, often decorated with felt, embroideries, and handmade carpets. We fired up the stove eagerly, happy to have some heat while we ate dinner and spent the night at 9560 feet.
My travels over the next few days took me further and further away from modern life and deeper into wild nomadic territory, both geographically and culturally. As we drove through the stunning scenery, we passed numerous herds of camels, horses and goats – sometimes numbering more than 50. When I stopped to fly my drone over one large group, the camels looked up as if an alien was flying overhead and nervously ran away. Similarly, when we visited a woman milking her yaks, just the sight of us was enough to spook the animals. I learned that the mountains are populated with snow leopards as well as wolves, and when I noticed a wolf pelt hanging on the wall of one of our gers, my host explained that he had killed the creature himself, to protect his animals. Despite the underlying dangers of their land and the uncertainty of their animals, however, I was amazed at the warmth and friendliness of the Mongolian nomads towards us. Hospitality is so deeply ingrained in their culture that a complete stranger can just walk into their home, and they will happily greet them and serve warm milk and dried cheese. This was an experience that was repeated literally dozens of times over the course of my journey.
We continued the long drive to Tsambagarav Uul – a beautiful mountain on the border of Bayan-Olgii and Khovd provinces. At an elevation of 13,757 feet, its twin peaks are always snow-capped and it has special sacred significance to the people of the region, whose way of life differs so vastly from ours. Among them, we met a Kazakh eagle hunter teaching his young son the ancient skill of fox hunting with their impressive bird – which had a wingspan of nearly six feet. Later, as we hung around our camp waiting for some ominous-looking clouds to clear, an old nomad came to visit us on horseback. As we were talking to him, we watched his 12-year-old grandson single-handedly rounding up two herds of goats. I was impressed that such a young kid could handle this task so easily and the next time the boy rode by, I handed him my GoPro. He happily took off and continued herding for the next 15 minutes, while filming all the action.
Now a few days into my trip, my cameras were the only technology I still had access to, and one morning, awaking early and too cold to sit around, I walked 1000 feet up a nearby hill to about 10,200 feet. The wind was blowing hard, and grey clouds engulfed the snow-capped mountain in front of me. Strangely, by the time I reached the top and came across a small makeshift Ovoo (a shrine made of stones), a strong sense of emotion came over me and I realized the peace that a few nights camping with no connection to the outside world can bring. I spend my days planning the ultimate luxury travel for my clients, but this experience was a poignant reminder that simple things are sometimes as, if not more, meaningful – a fact brought home strongly by the starkly beautiful scenery and our encounters with the many Mongolian nomad families and their lifestyles.
In Khovd province, near the base of Sair Mountain, the wind was ferocious, and the temperature even lower – thanks to the nearby glacier. Once again, we were lucky enough to find a Kazakh nomad family who let us stay in their spare ger, so we were able to light a fire and stay warm. Our hosts brought us a local dish called “beshbarmak”, which consisted of horse meat and mutton, plus “shelpek” – local flat pasta, and potatoes. As we ate, a young boy was passing by with his dombra, and we asked him to play a few songs for us. It was obvious he was a beginner, but it was a fun experience nonetheless.
Adapting to the Mongolian diet was very much part of the adventure. Comprised largely of meat and dairy products, most food is produced during the summer months and stored for the inhospitable winters. Warm milk (called Suutei tsai) is a staple and we joined the locals for up to five or six bowls per day: yak, camel, goat, or cow milk, depending on which animals they were herding. It always tasted good – sometimes sweet, other times salty – but the sheer volume began to wear me down. I probably drank more milk in a week than I normally do in five years.
Besides milk, I also learned that animal dung is serious business in Mongolia. Since the nomads all herd animals, there is dung almost everywhere. You step in it, you drive over it, and most importantly, you use it to keep warm. There are very few trees in western Mongolia, so dung is the primary source of fuel for cooking and heating. It’s collected and put out to dry in the sun before being stacked in the large piles you can see next to every home. My trip was almost completely dung-fueled, and as the sun set and the cold crept in, I was very grateful for it.
The next leg of the journey was another long drive, first passing through the city of Khovd, where we bought some supplies, and then towards Altan Hokhii Mountain – several hours away along more rough dirt tracks. The terrain was different here though; we passed between multi-colored mountains, alongside lakes and areas of desert scrub, dotted with pretty yellow Caragana bushes. Midway through our drive, an enormous storm descended on us, with rains so heavy that flash floods erupted in almost every direction. The rain turned into a hail storm, and the ground went completely white in a matter of minutes. As I marveled at the transformation of the scenery though, I felt a pang for the hosts I had just left, and the effect of the adverse weather on their precious fuel. Rain is the biggest threat to dung, as wet dung doesn’t burn.
Our 4×4 navigated through the water, and we passed through vast grasslands that rolled on as far as my eyes could see, to arrive at our lodgings around 9pm. After several days of camping with no running water, this private luxury camp was a welcome sight indeed. After a nice meal in a heated dining tent, I retired to my ger for a night of comparable opulence, and the next morning I had my first shower for five days. The shower tent used boiled water in a bag, connected to a shower head. The gravity principle worked perfectly and I had a nice hot shower, only to freeze once finished!
After breakfast, we set off to the highest hill to survey the area. It was very peaceful here and we stopped to enjoy the view. Two nomads noticed us and rode over to say hello. With so few other people around, the locals will always come and check you out if you stay in one place long enough. I learned that Altan Hokhii is home to the Myangad Mongols – one of the west Mongol ethnic groups. They are historically renowned as horse trainers and migrate between the desert plateau and the high mountains, so we enjoyed an interesting chat about their daily lives. Later in the day, we came across a bunch of children playing outside a ger, so stopped to have a look. Inside, a Mongolian woman was making alcohol from milk with her mother – who turned out to be the grandmother of the nine kids we saw playing. This fermented mare’s milk is known as airag – a particular favorite of the nomads and I watched its production in more than one household. The grandmother was especially friendly, and as we chatted she explained that she was teaching all the families in the area about their local traditions, in the hope of preserving them as long as possible.
Reflecting on this during our final night in a ger camp, I felt very lucky to have had the chance to immerse myself in the authentic nomadic lifestyle, even if just for a short time. After my initial trepidation, it had been a great reminder that good things rarely come easily, and experiences like this come at the cost of stepping out of your comfort zone and sacrificing the trappings of modern convenience. The next day, as we arrived in Khovd on the way back to Ulaanbaatar, my phone started buzzing as the backlog of emails started coming through – a telltale sign that I was back on the grid. But memories of my time spent with the nomads of the Mongolian Altai mountains, marveling at their skills and hospitality, will stay with me for some time.